Christ’s Fifth Word From the Cross: “I Thirst.”
After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” – John 19:28
Everyone knows what it is like to be parched on a hot day, but to grasp Jesus’ fifth word from the cross is beyond the pale. It’s around 3:00pm and the end is nigh. He has hung on the cross for six long hours grasping for breath in an eastern climate on the heels of a prayer-filled sleepless night where He sweat like blood, only to be followed by a scourging, a crown of thorns, and iron spikes pounded through His hands and feet. You get the picture. Jesus is in pain and exhausted. He’s lost a lot of blood and is dehydrated; and despite “knowing that all was now finished,” his physical body is fighting to live. He thirsts.
For Us and Our Salvation… He Became Man
This fifth word from the cross often seems too prosaic and earthly for most commentators, so they force an over-spiritualized interpretation onto these simple and yet profound words.
Jesus’ thirst reminds us of His true humanity. He was not only “very God of very God,” as the Nicene Creed states, but also “born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal 4:4). In other words, Jesus was not hiding behind His divinity pretending to suffer on the cross as the early Docetists or Gnostics falsely asserted, but truly bearing the penalty of your sin in His humanity as He slowly suffered death for you. Thus, your Savior has represented you to the fullest before God in laying down His life. There is nothing left to do but place your trust in His finished work alone.
To Fulfill Scripture
Jesus is the point and central figure of the Bible. If you’re looking for someone or something else when you read Scripture you are missing the point. In fact, Jesus once told some naysayers, “You search the Scriptures [i.e. Old Testament] because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). St. John adds an editorial note that Jesus spoke this fifth word so that the Scripture would be fulfilled. Two Psalms were likely what Jesus had in mind:
15 My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death. (Psalm 22:15)
3 I am weary with my crying out;
My throat is parched…
21 They gave me poison for food,
And for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink. (Psalm 69:3, 21)
The jar of sour wine used to quench Jesus’ thirst was a common drink for Roman soldiers called posca. It was cheap and made by diluting old sour wine with water and herbs. It helped to prevent scurvy and killed harmful bacteria in the water and the vinegar taste made the available water a bit more palatable. Soldiers would often keep some on hand to prevent dehydration when they were on watch.
Completing His Saving Work
The simple physical request of this fifth word was perhaps made so that He could give utterance to His final two words. This was not, however, the first time He asked for a drink on a hot day.
Earlier in John’s Gospel, He encountered a Samaritan woman at a well and disrupted her life by asking her for a drink. There he makes a remarkable promise:
Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life – John 4:13
Jesus' death was a direct fulfillment of the will of His Father as promised in the Scriptures. He came to lay down His life as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. John's mention of the hyssop (John 19:29) would remind the Jews of the first Passover feast where God instructed the people to sprinkle the blood of the Passover lamb with hyssop over their doors that they might be spared from death (Ex 12:22). Jesus is the true Passover Lamb Whose blood cleanses us from sin. With the Psalmist we may ask, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God” (Psalm 42:2)?
Answer: Look no further than the crucified one who thirsted for you.
Brian William Thomas is a writer-in-residence and pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in San Diego, CA. His writing focuses on confessional Lutheranism in a post-Christian culture and reclaiming ancient pastoral practices for present day service.
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